Gopher Chauffeur launches Thursday night shuttle service

The free ride service gave 694 rides this weekend.

Marion Renault

The University of Minnesota’s Gopher Chauffeur extended service to Thursday nights this weekend, shuttling 135 riders in its first Thursday out.

The change follows talks with the Minnesota Student Association, which took up the issue in response to recent violent crimes on and around campus. The free ride service is also looking to change its hours next semester to 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. from its current 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. schedule.

“It was one of the things that was at the top of our agenda, and it really turned out the way we wanted it to,” said MSA President Mike Schmit. “It was a great turnaround — maybe not for the best reasons, but it went through really quickly.”

While the final decision to add Thursday service was made early last week, the University had been considering the change for some time, said Amelious Whyte, assistant dean of students and chief of staff.

The final push came from this year’s uptick in crime near campus and the resulting focus on campus safety, said Dave Golden, Boynton director of public health and communications.

“Safety concerns on campus … definitely prompted it,” he said. “It’s just responding to a need and getting it out there sooner than later.”

Management senior Joe Van Horn has worked for Gopher Chauffeur since his sophomore year.

“It’s something we’ve wanted to do,” he said, “but we were never really sure if there was the demand for it or the funding necessary to pull it off, but it finally got done.”

Golden said earlier in the month that an expansion to Thursdays would cost about $7,000 per semester, primarily for payroll.

Seven new drivers will be trained early next week, and more will be recruited for the spring semester, said health advocate advisor Julie Sanem.

Gopher Chauffeur reserve funds and student services fees will partly cover the expansion.

The Office for Student Affairs will take on the remaining costs to hold over Gopher Chauffer until it can make an increased request for student services fees. OSA will cover the cost for spring and the 2014-15 academic year, said Whyte.

“We already have the vans, so it’s not that expensive,” said Schlapper. “It’s just adding staff and personnel.”

‘Not much downtime’

The Gopher Chauffeur has given about 400 rides every weekend this year. With Thursday service, that number hit 694 this weekend.

“It’s been our busiest semester ever since running the service,” Schlapper said.

The Gopher Chauffeur provided more than 4,900 rides last fall. The service has already outpaced last year’s demand, providing more than 5,000 rides so far.

Tim Garay, a psychology and public health senior who’s been a Gopher Chauffeur driver for three years, said he’s noticed an increase in calls.

“It’s definitely been a lot busier,” he said. “It does get really stressful, especially when you get behind and you have a lot of people.”

Matt Broshat, a marketing junior wrapping up his first semester at Gopher Chauffeur, said he gives anywhere from 20 to 30 rides a night.

“There’s not much downtime,” he said.

Because student drivers pick up shifts voluntarily, it can be difficult to fill them each weekend, Van Horn said.

“You do get the opportunity to work as much or as little as you want,” he said, “so sometimes it can be tough to fill shifts.”

Some drivers, like genetics and biomedical senior Ashley Brate, said an extra day could temporarily strain drivers’ schedules.

“It’s been difficult lately, so I think it’ll be rocky at first,” she said. “But people are excited, so I think it’ll work out its kinks pretty quick.”

Though he doesn’t expect it to be as popular as the weekend shuttle, Garay said he thinks the extended Thursday night service will be a good addition to the Gopher Chauffeur.

“Instead of a 45-minute walk home in the cold, it’s a five-minute warm car ride,” he said.

Schmit said he hopes students will take advantage of the extra service.

“From the student perspective, we can be accountable for ourselves in being educated on existing services and not walking home alone,” he said. “It’s shared responsibility between us, the University and the [University Police Department].

“[This] offers students accessibility to existing services that have been proven successful in the past,” he said.

MSA still hopes to shift the service’s cutoff time for taking calls to 3 a.m. instead of 2 a.m.

“If you look at the crime alerts, a good chunk of them have been after 2 a.m.,” Schmit said. “If you call at 2:30, then you’ve got to walk home; you’ve got to call a cab. So we’re trying to make it as accessible as possible.”

Van Horn said he’s excited that more and more students are hearing about the service and using it as a “safety valve.”

“Safety is starting to become a problem on campus, and Gopher Chauffeur is a great way to do something about it,” he said.